On Aug. 1, 2020, Jim Helmer of Ben Lomond, California, sent the AOA the following note:
“I happened to come across a beautiful old sign [above] indicating: ‘Evelyn Brisbane, DO.’ I thought I could pass it on to her family, since looking at the age of the sign I’m presuming she may have passed. Do you have any records of that doctor in your archives? Possibly a contact?”
Helmer later wrote that he had come across the sign in 1983 in the back garden shed of a Santa Cruz, California, house that he and his wife had moved into (and have since moved out of). The previous homeowner had left it there, and they took it with them to their current home.
Always up for a history project, I asked the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine if they could help me track down any record of Dr. Brisbane. Research coordinator Christine Gran found an obituary published in the Santa Cruz Chronicle on June 14, 1963, which stated that she had passed away while visiting family in Poughkeepsie, New York, at the age of 61.
Given that Dr. Brisbane was born around 1902, and evidently had no direct descendants, I figured it would be a tough task to track anyone down with a connection to her. All I had to go off of were her two nephews listed at the bottom of the obituary: James and John Dietrich.
I had difficulty finding any leads on John, but after digging through old obituaries and public records, I was able to track down James, who is 84 and lives in Georgia with his wife, Margo.
After I connected the two parties via email, Helmer shipped the sign across the country to the Dietrichs. It arrived on Sept. 29.
Helmer also drove to the address listed as Dr. Brisbane’s old residence in her obituary, 205 King Street in Santa Cruz, which is still next to a medical office. Though he couldn’t confirm that it was where she had practiced, he sent along this photo of the building.
“Our family was excited to learn that the sign existed,” Margo Dietrich said. “It helped us all feel more connected to a long-lost relative who had been well-loved by those who knew her. We are so grateful to get the sign back and we are proud to have it. ”
Because Dr. Brisbane had no children and passed away many years ago, only limited photos and accounts of her life remain. The Dietrich family was able to find the photo below of Dr. Brisbane as a child, pictured here with her younger sister Margaret Brisbane (later Dietrich, James’s mother), who has also since passed away.
Dr. Brisbane remembered in memoirs
The Dietrich family also found a book of memoirs that Margaret had written for her niece, in which she described her childhood memories of her sister as well as a brief description of her life and death. Based on this account, it appears that being an osteopathic physician was just one of Dr. Brisbane’s many impressive achievements.
On Dr. Brisbane as a child:
“I had one sister, Evelyn, who was three years older than I. We got along just fine. I would fight anyone who picked on her. She was pretty and looked like my mother … I looked like my father and we used to kid each other about how handsome we were.”
On Dr. Brisbane’s career and life:
“My sister trained to be a teacher and passed her exams, but in the summer she got a job with the Bell Telephone Labs doing engineering work. Later she went to [Osteopathic College Los Angeles] and when she was 40 years old, she set up practice in Santa Cruz, California. This she did until she died of terminal cancer. She died in my home in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1963.”
While the sign and the family heirlooms above are all that the Dietrich family has to tangibly remind them of Dr. Brisbane, they hope that this story can serve as a lasting memorial to her well-lived life.
If you or a loved one knew Dr. Brisbane and have any memories of her you’d like to share, please leave a comment below.